Michael Powell


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Spirituality & Perception - Paper 2


An SSM (Self-Supporting Minister) approach

This paper was presented at a conference on the Reformed traditions of worship held at Westminster College Cambridge in September 2007 by the Cheshunt Institute of Reformed Studies.


‘Self-Supporting Minister’ (SSM) is the title now used by the United Reformed Church for those who practise a ‘secular’ profession and are also Ministers of Word and Sacrament. 

One facet of good SSM practice occurs when the SSM becomes a vibrant connection between his or her professional life and interests and the worship and life of the church. The same is true of authentically lay leadership of worship.

My professional field is ‘built environment’ which at various times has comprised working for building companies and industry organisations in conjunction with associated professions, teaching Built Environment at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, and in semi-retirement being minister of a rural church with historically significant buildings.  

My worship-leading role occurs on about half the Sundays in the year, in earlier years on a visiting basis and currently as ‘the local minister’. My approach is to use my built environment experience as raw material. The Reformed part of me values the freedom and space our tradition gives to worship leaders, while the Ecumenical part of me delights in the wealth of relevant material available from many traditions.   

This paper reflects on experience in:

  1. Preaching/dialogue/story-telling
  2. Other elements of worship  
  3. Church buildings/grounds as settings for worship.


I want to comment briefly on four aspects:

  • Themes and stories to which I frequently return
  • The use of immediate raw experience
  • Some special worship projects


One of these concerns the matter of trust. I once worked with an inter-company research committee. Two of the members, managing directors of their companies, discovered that they were both Methodist Local Preachers. Some Anglicans and Roman Catholics came out of the woodwork. The whole committee – Christian, humanist, agnostic and atheist - challenged the organisation, and me in particular, to try to ‘do something’ about trust and trustworthiness in the commercial complexities of the building industry. 

Part of the large scale industry problem was addressed by a government assignment undertaken by Sir Michael Latham, a leader in the construction group of MP’s and an Anglican Reader.

I myself gave a paper to ARCOM, the Association of university-based Researchers in Construction Management. A young lecturer took a keen interest. Recently, some 15 years later, he told a colleague of mine that that day had changed the whole direction of his research and teaching. I don’t know whether he has Christian commitments but the colleague who took the trouble to pass on his message does.

I always make trust and trustworthiness a topic in my ethics and values seminars. Last year a young Muslim woman architectural student from Dubai said to me and her student group, ‘Trust, that is Islam, our faith. I see now how my faith and my profession relate’.  

This is an inspiring story of the Christian and other religions doing their job and so telling it has a place in worship.


Out of some ten years worth of sermon scripts I recently selected thirty that covered the liturgical year using the raw experience of a university building lecturer. Here is the essence of just one. I am speaking to one of our small URC congregations. On this particular day I am vulnerable and need them and the university community needs their prayers.  

It is Advent a time of promise and repentance. The word translated as repentance is metanoia, `a change of mode of thought and feeling'.

Over the last ten days three things have happened which have led me and others into new modes of thought and feeling.

I took a group of students to meet some architects in Bridge Street Cambridge and to visit an out of town site. These architects were young and their thinking fresh. The students came back and said this is new, good and inspiring.

We went on to Ely Cathedral, the Fens on a December afternoon. The guide told us about the glorious blue that once covered the walls. ‘Away with Puritanism’, I cried! A change in mode of thought and feeling.

A few days later we had an accidental student death on the railway. His tutor said to me, ‘This changes everything’.


I had no time or energy to prepare sermons. All I could do was share the experiences of metanoia.

Let me add one other small example. Recently a congregation got a passing summary of a one-hour student seminar on values, ethics and Olympic sites. In the seminar, Greek students talked about Olympic origins and the modern Athens games; a Chinese talked about Beijing 2008 and the birds nest stadium; Londoners talked about 2012 compared with 1948; and someone talked about Munich . The universe of the university became for a moment incarnate in the village congregation.


In the 1990’s Eastern Synod Church and Society Committee led by Jeanne Armourundertook some weekend projects. On Friday evenings we invited to dinner some people knowledgeable on the subject. On Saturdays we made visits and on Saturday nights we prepared morning worship for our host church based on what we had discussed and discovered. At Stowmarket we studied Transport and the sermon asked:  

Why does a Church and Society Committee need to spend a weekend meeting people such as road designers and safety advisers, bus and railway managers, port and airport chaplains, police, freight hauliers, economists and theologians with a special knowledge of transport? And even more, why spend a Saturday afternoon walking through the construction site of the Stowmarket inner relief road?

The short answer was, ‘Because this making and remaking of the world matters and we care’ - or, in a word, ‘incarnation’.

One of our Chelmsford teaching nuns has produced a marvellous painting illustrating Isaiah’s ‘Prepare the way’. The road is the A12 and the Chelmsford viaduct under which I walk to University every day. The original was on display during our local Advent retreat at the school. I used the card next day in the URC Sunday service.

I once led a weekend school for the East Anglian Ministerial Training Course, about theology, ministry and building. Happily there was a building site next door to the Ely conference centre. In the Saturday morning worship the chaplain included Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut. ‘What is this?’ ‘It is all that is made’. I borrowed a brick from the site and unpacked it: ‘Brick, clay, geology, extraction, reinstatement of pits, brick manufacturers , work of the brick, its weight, warmth, colour, bricklayer’s skill, building designer’s skill, in time the brick will return to the earth, clay to clay’. Nearly all that is made is present in a brick!

Other elements of worship

I will comment briefly on:  

  1. Sacrament
  2. Prayers
  3. Hymnody


My sacramental marker is Teilhard de Chardin because he was both professional geologist and Catholic priest. He writes:  

Son of earth, steep yourself in.... matter. Never.....say to matter, “I have seen enough of you; I have surveyed your mysteries and have taken from them enough food for my thought to last me for ever”. .....Never say, “Matter is accursed, matter is evil”: for there has come one who said, “This is my body”.

The nuance of this always affects my approach to the offering of bread and wine and sometimes I make it explicit.

In a Teilhard mood I wrote and used this Christmas Eve Communion prayer to encapsulate my thinking about ‘offertory’:  

This table is our Bethlehem, the holy place to which the star guides us.


It is the place where we see the glory of God.


It is the place where for us peace from God's own heart is given to the earth.


It is the place to which we bring our shepherding, the duties and responsibilities of our lives, that they may be gathered up into the mystery and miracle and meaning of the incarnation.


It is the place to which we bring all human learning and riches and kingship that they may be made holy.


It is the place to which we bring our gifts of bread and wine that God may become incarnate for us.


It is the place where we celebrate in sign and symbol the whole

story of our faith.                                 


I love Evensong but I do tease the Anglicans about making us all into ‘miserable offenders’. It is good to have the freedom to come to confession in a more open, Reformed way:  

Good Work

Lord, we offer to you for blessing all that is good in the work done in this town. We picture its High Street and out of town stores, offices in large blocks and on small unnoticed corners, its hospitals and health centres, its places of entertainment, of education, its places of industry, manufacture and construction... Lord, in these and in every place where good work is done, may it be blessed by you.

Lord, not all our work is good. Some is done less well than it should be and some that is done should not be done at all, for it brings about no good. For bad work and wrongful work, we ask your forgiveness....


I made an analysis of building in Rejoice and Sing. Some 150 of the 647 hymns - 25% - could be said to resonate with building. The main themes include:  

Founding and building the earth

Incarnation, house of clay etc

Being built in Christ

Walls that protect or confine

Doors, houses, roads and paths as images

Homelessness and urban deprivation

Worship buildings

Heavenly temples and cities

Everyday buildings


Under ‘everyday buildings’ I warm more to Brian Wren’s ‘Let streets and homes with praises ring’ than I do to AN Other’s, ‘to the skies our monuments of folly soar’. As a teacher of Malaysian students I cannot accept that the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur are naive follies. We all need to evaluate the planning, design, economic and spirituality aspects of them and all similar structures.

Church buildings/grounds as settings for worship

My comments in this section relate to:  

  1. Sacred and simple places  
  1. Symbolic places


The church of which I am currently minister, Little Baddow URC founded formally in 1661, going back much further, is this year celebrating the 300th anniversary of the present Chapel building. It is the simplest of meeting houses with beautiful churchyard and gardens. Sometimes on Sunday morning we go outside to read the Psalm or Gospel to help make connections with the ‘outdoor-ness’ of the text. We also take time to wander. It is a way of doing the peace – peace with each other, with creation and with God.

As part of the anniversary, Brenda Hooson has published her five year natural history diary of the churchyard and manse garden. She says ‘Our churchyard, with a little careful thought and management can become a haven of peace.....’  and adds ‘in 1998-99 it won nationwide acclaim with its appearance on a TV Songs of Praise special, Sacred Places’.

The congregation has shown me that people, building and grounds are inextricably linked in a way that comes close to the Orthodox concept expressed by Christos Yannaras:  

So the body of the faithful which comes together in the church building to constitute and manifest the Church, the Kingdom of God and the new creation of grace, is not simply housed in this architectural construction, but forms with it a unified space of life and an event of life. The building joins the people in celebrating the Eucharist of creation........ The building and the people together.... compose the universal liturgy of the Church, the manifestation of Christ’s body. 

Let me balance that with a contribution from the Reformed tradition. While on holiday in Rome Bernard Thorogood sketched the dome of St Peter’s and then commented: ‘Somehow the size and the grandeur are too much… I wonder if the focus of the world church ought to be a very simple room, quiet and modest ……’.  

Of such simplicity is the Chapel, or Saxon cathedral, of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell on the Essex coast not far from Little Baddow. Here St Cedd landed in the 654 on his missionary journey south from Lindisfarne .  There is a major ecumenical pilgrimage every July with a service outdoors beside the Chapel. Whether on the big summer pilgrimage or on a solitary winter one, this is the most powerful ‘sacred place’ I know.


I take just one example. Chelmsford Cathedral is relatively small and beautifully modernised and appointed. Our university graduation ceremonies are held there over a week – Business, Health, Education, and Technology Faculties. At the end of the week Chaplaincy invites everyone back for a service of Thanksgiving and Dedication. The building unites the professional graduation aspect with the worshipful thanksgiving and dedication.

At first the graduations used to be held facing the back of the Cathedral. Now, as in the service, new graduates, their families and friends face the front, the altar for the Sacrament and the albos for reading and preaching the Word. That’s metanoia in itself! If the Reformers believed that all professions can be vocations, their vision is being fulfilled here each year!

Concluding comment

I hope this rapid survey has conveyed something of my enthusiasm for connecting built environment, one of the most fascinating and basic facets of human life, with Christian worship in a Reformed mode but wide open ecumenically.  It often seems hit and miss but I believe it is real life being built into worship.



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